Tomorrow's Mobile Content, Today
By Justin Hall, Fri Jun 11 08:00:00 GMT 2004

Mobile gamers might find each other gathered around local-area distribution of broadband content

Reliable high-speed connections in much of the world are still lagging behind the dreams of content developers. Today's phones are increasingly capable of playing powerful multimedia games, but even if the devices can drive that kind of fun, it can be hard to deliver to the device. The games are too large, and the networks are too slow to allow anyone to download rich stimulation or engage in it with other people

How can we create a market for next generation mobile entertainment in the context of constrained networks?

Let's Kiosk

Perhaps we can liberate mobile devices for new kinds of content by tethering them temporarily. Typically there are only a very few reasons to have your mobile phone anchored to a particular place - everything delivered to the phone is wireless, except power. So you charge your phone up when you have to; maybe you dock it with your computer to synchronize it and load it up (or unload it). Why would you want to dock it in public?

Consider it a way to download broadband-sized content before we have broadband networks -- circumventing the narrow pipelines of cell towers to get tomorrow's content today. To distribute broadband-era phone content, North American video games retailer Electronics Boutique has launched a new system called the "EB Wireless Gaming Station" as an effort to sell more mobile applications; what they may have on their hands is a community station for wireless gamers.

I spoke with Nathan Solomon, Director of Business Development for Electronics Boutique ("EB"). His vision for the distribution of content to phones demonstrates the struggle to innovate on the mobile platform, between the limits of handsets, networks, business models and consumer mindsets.

He sees EB's Wireless Gaming Station as an effort to develop the commercial market for bigger budget mobile games. Speaking more broadly about mobile applications in general, he does not see software distribution keeping pace with handsets: "Handset technology is outpacing network bandwidth, and there seems to be an opportunity to develop an alternate system of distribution of applications to the handset." A few wireless devices, most notably the N-Gage and a few of Nintendo's wireless experiments, sell software like computer and console games - in boxes on shelves. Solomon wants to push past those models: "While MMC cards have their place, it's counterintuitive to distribute to handsets via physical media."

Wireless Gaming Stations are being tested in a few Electronics Boutique stores in New York and California. Electronics Boutique is a chain of stores offering new and used video games in a mostly quiet, clean environment. It's not unlikely to walk into an Electronics Boutique to find a group of three or four young men hanging out near the register discussing radical moves in Tony Hawk's Pro Skater or the latest rumors about Halo 2. Mothers come in to ask which games are appropriate for their twelve year olds. Young folks come in to see if there's a hint book for the new Star Wars game; if there isn't, someone in the store might offer some advice on the second Jedi challenge.

This circle of gamers is common at any video game shop; EB is capitalizing on their location-based community by pushing mobile video games on customers carrying Bluetooth enabled handsets. Solomon describes their system: anyone passing within range of their transmitters will get a Bluetooth message. If they accept the transmission, they are prompted to install a catalog of available video and application downloads. Anything you download is playable in demonstration mode - limited in time or scope. Expanded playability is available through pre-paid unlock cards that you can buy at the cash register.

It's a bit like the location-based advertising on mobiles pundits have been imagining - walking by a Starbucks and seeing a coupon for a triple mocha something-or-other pop up on your screen. In this case, the people wandering through the game store are likely to be gamers, and the vendor is able to give the user an actual taste of the product. You can't give someone a whiff of coffee over mobile devices, but you can let them play a small piece of a larger game. You'd better hope their fully tempted on the spot, though, because today they can only pay for the product in person.

Wireless Watering Hole

Any group of people gathered for a common purpose in a shared location has potential for community. Moreover, if you're bringing people to a shared location with connected mobile devices, there's a more rich potential for new social interactions. Solomon agrees:
"We absolutely see the physical gathering space as one of the more exciting aspects of the offering." I asked him if users could leave messages for each other at the kiosks, or post their game stories or high scores. Not yet, Solomon replies, but that's obviously important in the future: "In the trial phase, that element is really turning out to be strong, even without two way interaction. Usually gamers do congregate in EB stores, but with wireless devices they can congregate around the platform and interact with that technology and each other in a more immediate way than other [gaming] platforms enable."

Most games with rich multiplayer capacity today use local-area networking technologies like Bluetooth for most of their connectivity. The challenge, in everyday life, is to find someone else within range on the commuter train or in the public plaza with an appropriate device, the same game, and the willingness to play. Where better to find another player along those lines than a Gaming Station?